By Helena Tavares Kennedy
You may have letters stashed away in a drawer or a shoebox from years ago because they mean something to you. Perhaps it is a love letter, a thank you card, or just words of encouragement that someone sent you when you most needed it. The power of the handwritten letter is still strong, even in today’s world of social media, texting, and emails. Nothing can replace the love and care that goes into a handwritten letter—the pen they chose, the weight and texture of the paper or card they selected, their handwriting, and of course, the message they bring to you.
In a day and age where handwritten letters are less frequent, but their need is larger than ever, that’s where Letters of Hope comes in. Letters of Hope is a nonprofit organization founded by Michelle Soto in 2015 after she watched a documentary film called “The Farm: Angola,” about prisoners in the notorious
and largest American maximum-security prison: Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.
While watching the documentary, Soto said she saw how desperate and in need of hope the prisoners were, “but also how some prisoners found hope in God and thinking positively. The documentary noted that most people stop visiting prisoners after three years, and one of the primary ways to communicate
with the outside world was through handwritten letters. I have a master’s degree in criminology, law and society, so I have always had a passion for safety, security and crime prevention. The documentary gave me a different view on what prisoners deal with, and I knew I had to help and do something.”
Letters of Hope began as a way to provide letters to individuals in the prison system but has expanded to much more. The organization now writes letters to people in homeless shelters, military facilities, hospitals, and more. “Thinking about encouragement, I saw how people free from prison still lived in
dismay and sadness,” said Soto. “Handwritten notes bring back a classic, powerful way of communicating.”
Words of Encouragement
Since launching three years ago, Letters of Hope has donated more than 10,000 letters, including 1,000 letters to inmates at the Prince William County Adult Detention Center during the 2016 holiday season. But Letters of Hope goes beyond prisons, with 500 letters sent in March to Chicago Votes, a nonprofit
that marched with local high school students to the voting polls. “Our goal this year is 30,000 letters, and that will be possible with donations and volunteers,” said Soto.
Jen Dean, organizational health director for Chicago Votes, said, “Life is stressful for teenagers, and when you add everything that comes with living on the South Side of Chicago, having a moment of encouragement can completely change a student’s day. And it did! The emotions you feel during your first time voting can vary from excitement to confusion to being nervous. Watching the girls light up with a newfound sense of confidence before their first time voting was amazing.”
Letters of Hope also recently sent 110 letters to first-generation Latino students in the Community Lodgings program, an Alexandria, Virginia–based nonprofit organization that helps families who are homeless or low-income. “Community Lodgings had the opportunity of distributing Letters of Hope to
its program children and adults,” said Melanie Ficke, director of programs at Community Lodgings. “My coworkers and I had the chance to distribute the messages before the students came into the program, and it was amazing to see their faces light up when they received their own letter. The inspiring messages are methods of promoting positive self-esteem and support for the students, and the sentiment is appreciated. Letters of Hope does great work, and I’m excited to see how far they can reach.”
The Hands Behind the Pens
While most volunteers are based in the D.C. and Prince William County regions, volunteers write letters all over the country and even overseas. In fact, Soto is currently seeking opportunities to expand the volunteer program worldwide.
Letters of Hope volunteer Shantel Nock joined because she said she wanted “to be a part of an organization that gives encouragement to those who may not have hope.” Another volunteer, Brittany Crawford, said, “Knowing I was going to be able to put a smile on other people’s faces actually put a smile on my face!”
For Soto, what she loves most about Letters of Hope is being able to “encourage people I may never meet in person. If I can encourage someone for a second, a minute, a day, a year or a lifetime, that brings me joy. If I can launch someone to change the trajectory of his or her life due to an encouraging letter, my
life is complete. Providing hope to people should be everyone’s duty, and I have made it part of my mission in life.”
Letters of Hope is always looking for donations, which are used for letters supplies, paper, markers, stickers and travel expenses to ship letters. “We have partnered with Givelify, a mobile donation application linked to our website, so people can donate securely,” said Soto. “People can click the donate now button on our website at Letterofhope.org.”
Prospective volunteers and other interested supporters can reach Soto at [email protected] or call 703-389-0674.
Helena Tavares Kennedy ([email protected]) is a local freelance writer and editor.